Tuned In

Robo-James' Time Machine: Championship Titles

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I am writing this post at a point in the past, at which I do not yet know if I managed to write a review of HBO’s new How to Make It in America before I went on vacation. If I did, however, I might have noted that this was another HBO series that makes excellent use of its opening title sequence. In this case it goes beyond simply looking cool (which it does) or having an excellent title song (which it does too). For How to Make It, I honestly believe that it made the show better: it visually and sonically tied together themes—the multicultural grit of New York, the immigrant dream, the hustle, the universally uniting appeal of chasing a dollar—that would not have come together as well in the pilot without it.

And the awesome ’70s-soul theme song, for whatever reason, reminded me of Sammy Davis Jr.’s kick-ass theme for the Robert Blake cop show Baretta. It reminded me what a shame it is that no one—well, no one outside cable—makes lengthy titles like this anymore. And it moves me to ask you: What were the greatest old-school TV title sequences of all time?

I’m not sure that Baretta is an absolute favorite of mine, the way, say, The Rockford Files probably is. But it’s characteristic of what I loved of TV credits of this era. There’s the attention to music, for starters, and the willingness to let the song play out. (Watch the titles from some old TV dramas, and you’ll get multiple verses—even bridges!) It’s not as artsy or highly produced as your typical HBO titles; highfalutin HBO, for instance, usually does not lower itself to the common literalism of running scenes from the show in the credits.

But the Baretta titles, in the same way as HBO’s little art films, create an atmosphere. They tell you this is a specific kind of cop show: streetwise, a little dirty and rough around the edges. There are stills and black-and-white, intimating the realism of a tabloid-paper police blotter. It introduces the hero, and lets you know that he’s a bit of a rake, but a likeable one. It offers crowd-pleasing elements: the titles promise you that there will be car chases, funny disguises and a cockatiel. And there were!

More than that practical function, though, I just miss the generousness of old credits, that sense of televisual abbondanza that they conveyed. They set the table for you. They transitioned you from whatever you had been watching before. We have a little time, they told you: sit, relax, and we will tell you a diverting story. Nothing like the rushed, businesslike, efficiency-minded, five-seconds-and-a-musical-stinger we get today. (Or, even on a great show like Lost, less than that.)

Yesterday’s TV viewer was welcomed to a show like an honored guest. Today’s is hurried through like a john in an especially productivity-minded whorehouse. Let’s get to business!, today’s credits say. Mama’s gotta pay the rent!

But, like a theme song for a ’70s cop show, I ramble. You tell me: what are your favorite classic-TV titles of yesteryear? And remember: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!